As we approach Halloween, one of my favorite times of year, it becomes inevitable for me to search for ways in which baseball and horror meet each other head on. There is no shortage of examples. For instance, about a year ago, I became aware of a photograph of a 1940 charity game in Los Angeles. The exhibition featured the “Leading Men” against “The Comedians.” Among the actors who played in the game was Boris Karloff, the horror screen legend.
Dressed in his full Frankenstein regalia, Karloff took one at-bat. An accomplished cricket player who loved the British pastime, Karloff managed to make solid contact despite the obstacles of a constricting jacket and monstrously thick work boots, hitting a ground ball on the infield. The Three Stooges, who were rather appropriately manning the bases, mishandled the ball repeatedly, allowing Karloff to round third and head for home.
After lumbering around the bases, Karloff approached the plate, where famed comedian Buster Keaton (the catcher) stood up in front of him, seemingly ready to tag Karloff. Then, after taking one look at the Frankenstein Monster, Keaton fainted, falling over backwards and allowing Karloff to score the run and complete the error-filled jaunt around the bases. It was wonderful theater and comedy, the kind of publicity stunt that old Hollywood did so well.
In the 1960s, The Munsters television show did something similar. A memorable 1965 episode featured a guest appearance by Leo Durocher, who was coaching for the Los Angeles Dodgers at the time, along with several of his players. In a memorable scene, Herman Munster (played by the great Fred Gwynne) got a tryout from the Dodgers, with Durocher watching his every move. Wearing his full Frankenstein-like makeup and looking like an over-muscled slugger ridiculously bulked up on steroids, Herman proceeded to slam rocket shots out of the ballpark, into the scoreboard, and through the third baseman’s glove, doing considerable damage to the park and the other players in the process.
The Herman Munster and Frankenstein Monster displays on the diamond represented a light-hearted effort to bring horror and horror imagery to the ball field. But there was also a far more sinister example of the two genres clashing. This one did not create amusement or humor, but instead caused a substantial controversy, one that led to a radical change in the history of the comic book industry.
The story begins with a publication called The Haunt of Fear, a bi-monthly horror comic put out by EC Comics, the same company that produced similar comic books like Tales From The Crypt and The Vault of Horror. The Haunt of Fear, which ran from 1950 to 1954, featured comic strips influenced by macabre writers like HP Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. It dealt with a variety of horror fare, everything from vampires to witches to just plain old-fashioned murder.
The Haunt of Fear published 28 issues. By far the most controversial was the one dated May/June of 1953. It featured a comic strip called “Foul Play,” which was created by legendary cartoonist Jack Davis, who would become far better known for his work with Mad magazine. (Davis died in July of this year at the age of 91.)
“Foul Play” tells the story of a midnight baseball game in a fictional place called Central City. The strip starts out innocently, recalling an earlier playoff game between Central City and Bayville. But strange circumstances soon developed. During the game, Bayville star Jerry Deegan was spiked at second base, but remained in the game. As he came to bat in the ninth, he began acting strangely. Striking out to end the game, he collapsed at home plate. His teammates rushed out, trying to figure out what was wrong. Within moments, they realized Jerry Deegan was dead.
Bayville soon discovered that Deegan had been murdered. He had been intentionally spiked by Central City pitcher Herbie Satten, who had dipped his spikes in poison. When the spikes penetrated Deegan’s uniform and skin, the fast-acting poison entered his blood stream, killing the young star.
The Bayville players concocted a scheme of revenge. Claiming to be a group of Satten’s fans, they sent him a letter saying that wanted to honor him with a plaque at the ballpark. They invited him to meet them at Central City Park at 11 p.m. For some reason, Satten did not become suspicious of the late-night meeting time. Instead, with his ego appropriately tickled, the self-centered Satten foolishly made his way to the ballpark.
Then comes the reveal of the comic strip. As the readers learn, a special midnight game is being played. The narrator of the story provides the details: “So now you know, fiends. Now you know why there is a ballgame being played in the moonlight at midnight in the deserted Central City ballpark. Look closely. See this strange baseball game! See the long strings of pulpy intestines that mark the baselines. See the two lungs and the liver that indicate the bases. The heart that is home plate. See Doc White bend and whisk the heart with the mangy scalp, yelling…”
“See the batter come to the plate swinging the legs, the arms, then throwing all but one away and standing in the box waiting for the pitcher to hurl the head into him.”
The head, along with the other body parts on display, all belonged to Satten. The Bayville players, in completing their revenge against the murderous Satten, killed him during their late night “meeting,” then dismembered him so that his body parts could become a part of the field and the game itself.
To call this gruesome would be a gross understatement. Not surprisingly, this comic created a stir, especially in the relatively conservative 1950s culture. The Haunt of Fear’s status as a publication marketed to teenage boys added to the furor. Readers of the comic, particularly adult consumers, were appalled. The following year, noted author and film critic Robert Warshow wrote an essay criticizing The Haunt of Fear for running the comic strip. “He described it as ‘the outer limits’… of good taste.”
That same year, German-American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published his book, Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham cited the “Foul Play” comic strip, along with a number of other examples from horror comics of the 1950s, in his scathing critique of the comic book industry. Wertham argued that young readers were becoming motivated to commit crimes, feeding into the problem of juvenile delinquency.
Led by Wertham’s railing, other folks joined in the fight against horror comics — parents, schoolteachers, religious leaders and psychologists. They argued that horror and terror comics were essentially provoking young children, particularly teenage boys, and exerting a dangerous influence on their behavior.
Congress took note. In April and June of 1954, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency met, headed by Sen. Estes Kefauver. Members of the committee heard testimony from Wertham, who presented a blow-up of the “Foul Play” comic strip, complete with the caption that described the various body parts littering the playing field.
Shortly thereafter, William Gaines, the publisher of EC Comics, offered his rebuttal to Kefauver and the rest of the committee members. He made a rational and impassioned defense of horror comics, arguing that the behavior of children was not affected by fiction, but rather by the environment in their homes, neighborhoods and schools.
The committee’s conclusion did did not place outright blame on the comics industry for juvenile delinquency, but did suggest that publishers tone down the content. They hinted that the comic book industry could face censorship.
That fall, the comic industry avoided outside censorship by creating the self-regulatory Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) and a Comics Code Authority (CCA), which placed severe restrictions on violent comic book genres. According to the code, publishers could no longer use basic words like “terror” and “horror” in their titles. Furthermore, they could no longer depict zombies, werewolves, vampires, ghouls and other sinister characters of supernatural origin. Subjects like cannibalism and torture could not be broached. Publishers now needed a seal of approval, which would appear on the cover of the comic books.
As the publisher of The Haunt of Fear, William Gaines rightly believed that his titles were being targeted by the code and would fail under its restrictions. So he cancelled The Haunt of Fear in September of 1954, publishing the last issue of the magazine with the dates of November/December 1954. Gaines also cancelled Tales From The Crypt and The Vault of Terror. By the end of 1955, all three magazines were gone from shelves. The Haunt and The Vault would never return, while Tales From The Crypt would make only a brief comeback in 2007.
From 1954 to 1971, the Comics Code Authority had a profound effect on the industry. A few underground comics sprang up, but mainstream horror comics were essentially sidelined, or their content was emasculated. It was not until 1971 that the code restrictions were lessened, allowing for the depiction of “vampires, ghouls and werewolves,” particularly when they were faithful to such classic stories as Dracula and Frankenstein.
The weakened Comics Code Authority remained in place until the current century, when Marvel Comics abandoned the code and announced that it would adopt its own ratings system. In 2011, DC Comics and Archie Comics became the last to part ways with the code, bringing it to an official end.
All these years later, the controversial Comics Code Authority is now defunct. Much of Wertham’s conclusions have been found flawed by scholar Carol Tilley, who discovered that he distorted his data to make comic books seem harmful than they were. Wertham, who died in 1981, would probably not appreciate the state of horror comics today. Today’s comic strips are far more graphic than their 1950s counterparts, in some ways far outreaching even the goriness of “Foul Play.”
Yet, “Foul Play” remains shocking to this day. Perhaps it’s the pristine image of baseball as a wholesome American game—a game that should be kept separate from the grisliness of the real world. When you introduce horror, which is still not fully accepted even in 2016, into that equation of American purity and innocence, you are bound to rile up a few skeletons.
References & Resources
- The Haunt of Fear
- David J. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror